To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
— Corinthians 9:22
Is a documentary filmmaker’s personal life relevant to how an audience perceives his or her documentaries? Most industry folks try to judge a film purely by what happens between the opening and closing credits — directors would certainly prefer things that way — but that’s an ideal. Sometimes, we have to look outside the frame.
Neither documentary directors, nor their films, function in a vacuum. That’s true of fiction, but it’s even more so for non-fiction. Documentaries are about the real world, created by a person from the real world, who has something to say about the real world. Never is this more relevant than when the director provides first-person narration or appears on camera in their film.
I am thinking of the documentary Blood Brother, directed by Steve Hoover. Hoover is a member of the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, but his faith is never referenced in the documentary, nor has it been part of the mainstream discussion. Why does it matter? Let me try to connect the dots.
When I first heard about the film, I was enthusiastic. Blood Brother follows Hoover’s best friend Rocky Braat, “a disenchanted young American drifting through India,” as it was described to me by producer Danny Yourd long before anyone had seen the film. Braat selflessly provides help to poor HIV-infected children in that country, and over the course of Blood Brother transforms from an alienated young man to one finding himself though loving and being loved by the children in India. It’s very graphic in its depiction of the suffering of the children — and of Braat’s emotions. It’s also very beautiful. Hoover tells the story from his perspective, as a filmmaker trying to understand what his best friend is doing.
That sounded like a truly worthy documentary. I wrote about it before it went to Sundance this year, as well as after, and I became part of the hype machine, linked to on the Blood Brother website, as the film tore through the festival circuit, becoming one of the most popular docs at festivals this year. It won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and amassed a pile of awards from other festivals.
But outside of the festival circuit, things went quiet. The film didn’t get picked up by a major distributor. I caught up with the film at Hot Docs but was flummoxed by what I saw. I felt that there was something not quite right about it. Was it that I wasn’t comfortable with how beautiful it was in its depiction of the suffering? Despite its best efforts, was this another entry in the “white savior” film canon? There was something I couldn’t put my finger on.
There was a strange lack of context to the film, which reviewers from the L.A. Times and the Village Voice, among others, have noted. It does keep the viewer focused on Braat and it simulates his journey to redemption, so I didn’t see any reason to knock it. And I figured the film had enough champions — from Morgan Spurlock and other top filmmakers to various festival juries — so it didn’t need me. It got a glowing review in The New York Times before its New York theatrical release last month.
And then I noticed Christopher Campbell’s Nonfics review of the film, in which he writes, “Many will see Blood Brother as primarily a film about Braat and about the kids. They’ll see him as a selfless, saintly character and the orphans as being in need. And maybe it won’t bother anyone to know that he’s basically a Christian missionary who has been converting the kids.”
Huh? I never saw any of that in the film. Not even an inkling. Nor had I heard anyone else talk about it.
Campbell cites a website and credits another writer for tipping him off to this information and spends a couple of paragraphs on the subject, summing up with the idea that the film “proves the worth of not taking documentaries simply on their own, regardless of what you think about any extra-textual circumstances or purpose.”
Reading Campbell’s review was an “aha!” moment for me. Yourd had contacted me again, but I didn’t follow through because there was something about Blood Brother that still wasn’t adding up, and this might have been it: Could there be a Christian subtext in the film, one that I, and almost everyone I know or have read, didn’t catch?
Why is this relevant? I’m going to get to that. And why am I taking so long to get to it? I’m drawing this out on purpose. I’m burying those bits because I don’t want this story to function like a Gawker snipe or as a sound bite. Doc Soup has always been for filmmakers and close watchers of documentary film, and I believe the issues raised here have complicated and significant implications for both. I didn’t bring this to The New York Times, where I write about documentary, because it would have been cast differently. I had written about how the pro-nuclear power documentary Pandora’s Promise had gone against the ideological grain of the documentary and film festival communities for the Times, and although this felt related, I wanted to treat this with careful consideration, and try my best to not allow the issues be misconstrued.
After reading Campbell’s review, I researched any criticism I could find about Blood Brother. I found no mentions of Hoover’s Christian faith in the reviews or any of the interviews with Hoover, including his own first-person account for Filmmaker magazine, in which he wrote about how and why he made the film, with no reference to anything nearing spirituality.
In a 4,000-word Q&A with the Sag Harbor Express, however, Hoover does mention how close he was with Braat, and that they would bring homeless people, some of them drug-addicted, off the street to live with them. “We had some spiritual changes when we were in college,” Hoover says. “I was more influenced by that and inspired by Rocky.” But the journalist didn’t follow that thread.
As open and free-wheeling as we like to think the Internet is, it’s actually broken up into tribes. In the mainstream and film world, there has been virtually nothing on Hoover’s faith. But in the Christian online world, the story is very different.
At the website of the International Churches of Christ, an affiliation of churches that claims Hoover as one its disciples, Blood Brother is considered a “disciple-made documentary.” The site gives the film a thumbs up. “Well done Rocky and Steve,” it says in a post dated October 19, 2013. “Please be praying for Blood Brother to win an Oscar nomination by the Academy Awards for the 2013 Best Documentary.”
Many appear to be supporting the film from afar, but there are also those who are closer to Hoover, such as Caleb Lombardi and James Tomol, both of whom attended Braat’s wedding in India. They discuss their Christianity and Braat’s trip to India on their website. “Many of the teens have become Christians by [Braat's] example and leadership in the community,” their site says. “He is a man of impeccable integrity and character whose sole purpose is to love like Christ.” Back to these guys later.
But if it’s any indication that the Christian themes in Blood Brother are hard to catch, go no further than David Schaal’s review of the film for a Christian website owned by a self-described “evangelical think tank” called the Brehm Center.
“While you never hear it in the movie that Rocky is a follower of Jesus Christ, all through the movie you see it. I kept telling myself, ‘Either this guy is a Christ Follower, or God is using him to teach me what a true Christ Follower looks like!’” Schaal writes. “I was happy to learn through talking with Rocky Braat, that he is indeed a follower of Jesus Christ. In conclusion, this film begs for a response. How will I respond to this message of being Jesus in the flesh to others?”
I also found in Hoover and Yourd’s previous work, a music video for a band called House of Heroes — you can watch it on GodTube — for which Yourd and Hoover received a nomination for a Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award. Unlike other directors, such as Michel Gondry and David Fincher, Hoover doesn’t list his work with House of Heroes on IMDb. There also isn’t any mention of Blood Brother on the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ website, which strikes me as odd if two of its members made a startlingly effective documentary. Wouldn’t it want to trumpet their success?
What I did find on the church’s website made me uncomfortable. It’s an evangelical church, first of all. These guys don’t mess. They think I, and probably you, are going to hell. “We believe that those outside of Christ are lost,” it says on the site. “To this end, we practice a robust evangelistic outlook and use our personal bible study groups to introduce and train others in the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ. We practice lifestyle and neighborhood EVANGELISM and see this as our ULTIMATE MISSION as a congregation.”
Those CAPS, by the way, aren’t mine.
What does any and all of this mean in regards to Blood Brother? I wasn’t sure. But it seemed like the time to go to the source.
I set up an interview with Hoover, who spoke to me from Los Angeles, where he was supporting the release of the film. Hoover told me that he is, indeed, a member of the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, and that Braat was, but that he might not be anymore, technically, because he had moved to India.
I asked him why he wasn’t more open about his and Braat’s Christianity, and he disagreed with me that it wasn’t in the film, and that, in fact, “in every major situation in the film, an aspect of Rocky’s spirituality comes up,” he said. “There were times when I thought I showed it too much. I thought it might make people uncomfortable.”
Hoover said he was bothered by the suggestion that his film might be secret Christian propaganda. He said that Rocky went to India without an agenda and that he “never went with a missionary perspective or to convert the kids.”
“What I created, and what Rocky did, was completely independent of the church,” he said. “I had zero personal connection with him going and zero understanding. I didn’t understand what motivated him to do it. I just wanted to make a film about my friend.”
To connect the film to his Christian faith would be a mistake, Hoover insisted repeatedly. “It’s an island to itself. It’s just Rocky’s story,” he said. “I am not an evangelical filmmaker. I am a filmmaker. I am not interested in pushing Christianity in my filmmaking. I tell people this all the time. It’s not in my spiritual DNA.”
When I asked him about church doctrine, he indicated that it wasn’t relevant. As for being part of an evangelist church, he replied, “In every church’s mission statement evangelism is a biblical teaching principle.” I will leave it to others to follow up on The International Church of Christ, but I’ll just say that there may be a lot more there, there.
Hoover’s point was that it’s OK to be a believer and a filmmaker. Of course it is. I’m not disputing that. But a closer watching of Blood Brother suggests that Hoover may have crafted the film in such a way that it can be received in different ways. Secular audiences can see it as a secular story, and Christian audiences can see it as a religious one. It’s quite masterful, I must say.
But the notion that a documentary can be an island is just not true. Even if we are to take all of Hoover’s points on face value, it doesn’t mean that his faith isn’t all over that movie. The question is, have audiences been misled in a way that should be challenged?
In the film, Hoover portrays Braat as being a lost soul — a good guy who had a troubled childhood and never connected to his father. He went to India to seek “authenticity,” we’re told in the film. And through his narration, Hoover says he can’t understand why his friend would go off to India and live with the poor like this.
But if these two have been best friends for a decade, and they’ve slept in the same room for many years, and they took in the poor and rehabilitated them, and they were baptized together for the same church, it stretches my credulity to believe that Hoover and Braat wouldn’t have ever considered the Christian implications of Braat’s sense of longing and desire to help in India. Or that Hoover’s telling of that story wouldn’t somehow be related to his Christianity.
From John the Baptist through Jesus himself, up to Mother Teresa and beyond, there’s a pretty strong precedent to Christians ridding themselves of worldly goods to live with, and help the poor. As well as those who bear witness to such acts.
But Hoover casts Braat’s journey as a more generic one — an abused young man is disconnected from his father, then finds a family as caretaker of orphans. But what about the church they were a part of for so many years? Whether or not he could find a sense of belonging and community with his fellow Christians, including Hoover, is surely relevant.
And whatever truth there may or may not be in Hoover’s contention that all Christian churches preach evangelism, there is a clearly a spectrum to how much converting a particular church believes in. I think it’d be fair to call an evangelist church on the extreme side of the evangelical.
In one of his sermons, Hoover’s minister, Brett Miller, talks of “testifying” to God’s impact as a way to spread the gospel. There are different ways to win souls, he says. You can do it by just chatting with a neighbor. But you have to ask yourself as he does, “Are we changing hearts and minds?”
It’s wording Braat himself uses in the film, describing how he is “winning the hearts of the men and women by winning the hearts of their children.” He also refers to his work as a “mission,” but it can again be interpreted in secular terms.
Miller is a great, accessible speaker, by the way. He’s energetic and fun. He refers to his fellow Christians as “bro” and “brother” and “sister” — something worth considering when thinking about the title of Hoover’s film. He’s also savvy about modern culture. In one sermon, he talks about how he loves movies, but that he is concerned about their dark messages, because he “understands metaphorical speech.” He was an English major, he says, and he didn’t “fall off the turnip truck.”
It works both ways. On the church website, there’s a link to a video clip promoting a “2020 Vision” for the church that calls for rejuvenating the churches. In it, there are rebirth images taken from Hollywood films, such as The Matrix, Superman and Iron Man, layered with the text “for the sake of Christ.”
These guys are aware of the subtextual power of movie making.
And if Braat’s trip to India is totally disconnected from his church, is it just sheer circumstance that lands him at an orphanage run by the Pennsylvania-based HOPE worldwide, which was founded by the International Churches of Christ? Apparently. Hoover writes in the Filmmaker article that Braat “stumbled” upon those kids.
Watching the film with all of this in mind, I can not help see Christianity as being sewn into the DNA of Blood Brother. It helps explain why Braat would marry an Indian woman he hardly seems to know. Without that knowledge, it seems puzzling, but if you throw in the Christian factor — the woman he marries is also a Christian — there’s so much more logic to it. (You can find it in the church website; “marriage relationships of Christians are to be pursued with only those who ‘belong to the Lord.’”)
In a particularly heart-breaking sequence, one of the boys nearly dies. Braat selflessly cares for him, wiping the boils on his flesh. It’s like Schaal says, his actions are Jesus-like, and we see it in graphic digital camera detail. Perhaps Hoover sees the suffering on a different level than most other filmmakers — as biblical allegory as well as the real blood and pus right before him. Perhaps Hoover doesn’t see the child as just a child but also as a child of God, and that’s why he shows him ailing in such unflinching, yet loving, detail.
In the sequence, Braat invokes God and speaks of praying, but such invocations are almost secular given the extreme situation. I missed it. The viewers I talked with also missed it. Many an atheist would call on God in such a moment. But my primary concern isn’t so much Braat as it is Hoover. At the end of that scene, Hoover says, “Rocky believes that God saved Surya’s life. The doctors and nurses say that Rocky saved Surya’s life.”
What does this mean? Braat could be right, or the doctors and nurses could be right. Or both could be wrong. Or, what if they’re both right? Is that possible? In the law of transitive properties, if a = b and b = c, then a = c. If you’re a devout Christian, and a believer in the Trinity, that sort of thinking should be very familiar. That would make Braat’s acts like the acts of Jesus Christ.
“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” That’s John 4:16. I picked that up from the Three Virtues site. That’s the one run by the two young avowedly Christian young men, Lombardi and Tomol. Lombardi was the photographer at Braat’s wedding, and Tomol is the founder of the organization Living to Inspire Global Healing Today, or LIGHT, which appears in the opening credits and in a call to action in the closing credits, and of which Hoover is listed as a contact. In their blog, they connect Surya’s near-death to a passage in the bible entitled, “Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Boy.”
Lombardi and Tomol do not speak for Hoover, but it’s certainly interesting to see how his friends cast their work differently than he does. In a video short on Vimeo, while sensitive folk rock plays in the background, the two speak to the camera about experiencing the poverty and suffering of India. Lombardi says that they’re “down on that level. Getting down with them. Being poor with them.”
And while the “upper classes” don’t care, and the poor are “cursed by the gods,” there is one man working for them — their friend, Rocky Braat. They say that they’re creating another orphanage that will take care of the kids who age out of Braat’s orphanage.
“We just honestly want to help and we want to show our disciples and brothers and sisters the love of Christ,” Tomol says.
We see two young white guys who’ve come to India to do good and who seem quite naïve about their place in the geo-political history of Christians doing work in developing nations. It’s a far less sophisticated approach than that of Blood Brother.
In Blood Brother, when Braat and Hoover weep on camera in response to the tragic lives they encounter, it’s moving. But it’s a little weird watching them break down while the Indians seem puzzled, even consoling them when it’s their own who are dying. It suggests to me a cluelessness about cultural relativism that might best be explained by not only a lack of education in post-colonial politics, but also in their seeing all of this in biblical terms.
Look, I get it. Hoover just wants to be known as a filmmaker. In the same way that Gore Vidal didn’t believe his sexuality should be relevant to his writing, Hoover doesn’t think we should care about his relationship with God. He wants his movie to be universal.
He wants us to see what he wants us to see. That’s true for all filmmakers. But, for months, Blood Brother has received a pass from journalists for its mysteries. There are pieces in Blood Brother that appear to be missing, manipulated or hidden because I believe Hoover didn’t want certain facts to be known. That should raise questions — it goes against a de facto standard of disclosure in documentary filmmaking.
Hoover says he did not have a Christian agenda making the film. It’s up to you if you want to connect the dots the way I have. But, I should add, these questions become more pointed when you remember that the credits direct viewers to the charity LIGHT. Is there an appropriate amount information provided by Hoover’s documentary, or even on LIGHT’s website, to make an informed decision to donate? Presidential candidate Barack Obama had to answer for his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He confronted those issues and was able to move on — and get elected. Hoover might not want us to go there, but I think this is the price of membership in his church.
I hope three things come from me raising this issue. One, that we can have a constructive discussion about when and whether a filmmaker’s personal life is relevant to a discussion about his or her film. Two, if Hoover puts himself in his next film, about a rogue Ukrainian priest who goes to extreme measures to get drug-addicted youth off the streets, that he considers acknowledging his past doing similar work and mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story. And, third, that Blood Brother gets that Oscar nomination. Hoover is a good filmmaker and Blood Brother‘s cause, as it is presented in the film, is more than just.